Don’t expect any cease and desist letters from Walt Disney Pictures to the makers of Life, Animated. This often moving, occasionally problematic documentary, directed by Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda), is about an autistic man named Owen, who as a child emerged from his silent world with the help of Aladdin, Ariel, Simba, Bambi, Dumbo, and Peter Pan, among many other fictional friends. As chronicled in the candid, touching 2014 book by Owen’s father, Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind—and this excellent episode of Radiolab—the Disney movies provided Ron and his wife Cornelia the vocabulary to communicate with their son. Both parents blink away tears when they discuss the moments, some from two decades ago, when Owen would make eye contact and mimic a memorized line of dialogue from a Disney classic. Ron describes the Disney catalogue as a vehicle for “our rescue mission to go inside this prison of autism and get him out.”
The film uses a liberal amount of clips from the studio’s classics—plus a beautiful charcoal-drawn short within the doc, called The Protector of Sidekicks, made by French animation house Mac Guff. The animation depicts Owen as a lost little boy and helps to tell the hard truths about the common difficulties (school bullying, crushing loneliness, impaired mobility) that he suffers. His pain is deeply felt, but so is his joy. Having graduated high school as the film begins, we see him leading a Disney appreciation club for other autistic students. They get a visit from the voice of the irritating parrot in Aladdin, the inimitable Gilbert Gottfried, who playfully screeches about Owen, “That’s all I need—him doing the lines better and working cheaper than I do!”
But the Gottfried appearance also highlights the uniquely privileged level of care that Owen is receiving, a fact that the movie consciously avoids putting in context. And trickier to grapple with are the numerous times that Williams’ camera acts like a fly on the wall in Owen’s daily existence. In one scene, his parents kiss him goodbye and leave him alone in his new apartment and we see him dawdling around—but the moment immediately feels phony and staged, which leaves a faint whiff of exploitation clouding the whole enterprise. Encounters between Owen and his girlfriend, meant to be casual date nights, are likewise awkward to watch in such an obvious documentary format.
Much more poignant, in fact, are several discussions about love and sex between Owen and his wise, concerned older brother Walt. In a movie about autism, it’s actually Walt who provides the most emotionally nourishing scene, when he ruefully speaks about the life-long caregiving that Owen will require, even after their parents have passed away. In the movie’s frankest, funniest moment, he also wonders whether he’ll eventually need to show Owen some Disney porn in order to teach him the facts of life. The Suskinds’ humongous hearts are obviously in the right place and their openness is to be admired and encouraged—even if a book, more than a movie, remains the better venue to fairly and honestly tell Owen’s extraordinary story. B